Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer is meeting with security experts to determine whether evacuating 35,000 people from Capitol buildings when a small plane violates Washington's restricted airspace is the safest policy, amid criticism from experts that it might create even more danger.
Gainer said a group of engineers, security experts, social scientists and aeronautical engineers from Texas A&M University has been studying Capitol Hill buildings and terrorist attack scenarios to determine the safest options for those inside the buildings.
The work already was underway when a small plane headed toward downtown Washington on Wednesday created a midday crisis. Unable to establish contact with the pilots, and with the plane coming within three miles of the White House, Gainer ordered the evacuation of Capitol buildings. Officials also cleared the White House and the Supreme Court until the plane was forced to land in Frederick.
"The evacuation policy is an evolving work in progress," Gainer said in an interview Friday.
Gainer said he had to make a complicated, split-second decision to evacuate based on the information he had from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"If [a similar scenario] happened this afternoon, I would empty the buildings," Gainer said. "A month from now, I don't know."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gainer and other leaders have planned for a variety of worst-case possibilities.
Several high-ranking law enforcement officials and homeland security experts, however, questioned Wednesday's evacuation.
They said that if a jet loaded with fuel were nearing the White House or the Capitol, an evacuation would make sense. But in this case, they said, officials ordering the evacuations knew the plane was a Cessna 150. The damage that a small plane, even one packed with explosives, could cause to buildings would be minimal, they said.
Capitol evacuation faulted
Pentagon officials took that into account in deciding not to clear that complex, according to federal authorities.
"Evacuation for a small plane makes no sense based on the amount of damage that plane acting as a missile can do," said David Heyman, director of homeland security programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit research group.
"I was not impressed with what happened last week," Heyman added. "We need to seriously reconsider evacuation versus a shelter-in-place plan."
The potential casualties, Heyman and other specialists said, could have been far worse because masses of unprotected people were running through the streets.
"That plane would have done virtually zero damage to the buildings," said one law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter. "By having people running and screaming through the streets like a Godzilla movie, you could easily have secondary attacks with guns."
Plane size seen as determining factor
Another law enforcement official pointed to an incident in Tampa in January 2002 in which a 15-year-old student pilot committed suicide by slamming a stolen Cessna 172R into a downtown Bank of America skyscraper. No one in the building was hurt in the crash.
"When you're talking about heavy structures like the White House and the Capitol, the safest place is inside," that law enforcement official said.
"It's one thing if the plane is a giant jetliner with lots of fuel and weight. We all know the damage that will do. But with an aircraft so light, the evacuation procedures need to be reevaluated," the official said.
Heyman also said that if a decision were made to shoot down the plane — which officials said was close to happening — the tens of thousands who had been evacuated would be most at risk.
"If the plane were shot down at the last possible moment, that would be in the pathway of the people evacuating," he said. "You have to be concerned about the debris coming down on them."
Bioterror raises stakes
Other counter-terrorism specialists said that the small plane could have sprayed a biological or chemical substance on the crowds evacuated from the buildings.
"The safest thing would be to remain inside rather than be exposed to those substances," said Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser and terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank. "We know about terrorists' interest in crop-dusters and the dispersal of chemical and biological substances."
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, agreed. "What if the threat ended up being a biochemical threat?" he asked. "Do you then want to go outside into the air and stand?"
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that even if it were necessary, the evacuation raised other issues. "Why were others not evacuated?" she asked, contending that other downtown buildings also could have been hit by the plane.
Jenkins said British law enforcement officials have faced the question of evacuation in their years of dealing with terrorism and the Irish Republican Army.
"One of the things they learned is that the safest thing may be to remain in place rather than evacuate thousands of people through stairwells and lobbies and streets and parking lots where a bomb is likely to be placed," Jenkins said.
Not the first time
Questions about the wisdom of mass evacuation were raised last June when a small plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to Washington for former president Ronald Reagan's funeral strayed into restricted airspace.
Shortly afterward, the Capitol Police hired the consultants from Texas A&M to help them devise a policy based on structural information on the buildings and possible threats, Gainer said.
Gainer met Friday on Capitol Hill with about 100 chiefs of staff for senators. They had many of their own questions. And he said he awaits the consultants' final study.
Although federal officials, lawmakers and private security specialists agreed that last week's evacuation went smoothly and was noticeably better than the clearing of the Capitol in June, the question remains about whether it should be done at all.
"The system worked last week in the sense that the plane was picked up the minute it strayed into prohibited airspace and the fighter jets were scrambled," Jenkins said.
"The question is what then is the most sensible thing to do," he said. "It was not a big commercial jet. It was a little, tiny airplane. It makes sense to reevaluate."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.